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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Two Classes of Orchestra

By Norman Lebrecht / August 20, 2004

These are testing times for British orchestras. Night after night they troop through the BBC Proms, performing for a global audience and against one another. Note for note beside the world's finest, most are found wanting. Bottom of the heap for many years was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales which made a noise like a pup in a sack of leeks. But the Welsh are in revival mode under Richard Hickox's no-nonsense stick and the search is on once more for the nation's worst.

Competition has never been so fierce. Beyond London lies a marshland of orchestral mediocrity. With the gleaming exceptions of Manchester's Halle where Mark Elder has wrought wonders, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which has adjusted under Sakari Oramo to post-Rattle quietude, the rest of the civic and regional bands are in varying states of <>disrepair, the legacy of a generation of industrial failure.

The orchestras of Liverpool, Bournemouth, Scotland and the north-east of England have not been invited this year to the Proms, a charitable omission for they could not have covered themselves in much glory. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, in particular, has put itself practically beyond the pale of human sympathy.

Derelicition on Merseyside goes back a long way. In the militant 1980s the <> city cut funding to the arts; in the 1990s the Arts Council lost patience with the orchestra. Four hapless managers came and spent. Vital reforms were vetoed by dinosauran unions. I remember Libor Pesek, the hugely popular Czech music director, weeping into my breakfast coffee as he implored me to get him an audience with the Queen who, as patron (he imagined), could restore order by royal command.


Pesek yielded his post to a faceless protégé, Petr Altrichter, who was in turn replaced by Gerard Schwarz, conductor of the non-union orchestra in Seattle. Michael Elliott, the next chief executive, had a close understanding with the Arts Council's chief, Peter Hewitt. The orchestra's debts were written off. Philharmonic Hall had a makeover and the Liberal Democrats took over City Hall. Life was on the up and Liverpool got picked as the UK's candidate for City of Culture 2008. For a brief moment it seemed that political pragmatism had allied with cultural aspiration to procure a positive outcome.

<>This being Liverpool, though, trouble was never more than two bars away. Schwarz recruited new section leaders, offending long-embedded incumbents. The concertmaster, Malcolm Stewart, who twin-jobs at the orchestra in Toulouse, quit in a huff. When Schwarz refreshed the programming, players grumbled at having to play strange new pieces. Last April, they called a meeting and voted to ask the management not to renew Schwarz's contract, which falls due in 2006.

<>Elliott and his chairman, Roger Lewis, chief executive of Classic FM, summoned Schwarz to a review at which they offered him a new contract, but as a guesting conductor rather than as music director. Schwarz declined. 'I was hired as a US-style music director in the full sense of the term, responsible for everything within the organisation and its relations with the community,' he told me at the weekend. 'For me to go backwards wouldn't make any sense.'

<>Schwarz, 57, maintains a dignified silence about the internal upheavals and intends to see out two more seasons in full vigour. 'I know what is needed to take this orchestra forward, economically and artistically,' he insists. 'I have a history of success. When I came to Seattle in 1983 the Symphony had 5,000 subscribers. Today it has 40,000 and a brand new hall. I was allowed there to do what I do. In Liverpool, I wasn't.'


The immediate fallout from this tacky episode has seen the cancellation of a £340,000 sponsorship by a local solicitor, Rex Makin, and a last-ditch appeal to Schwarz by the city's chief executive, begging him to reconsider his decision. Liverpool can ill afford to lose its music director and its best footballer while competing for its biggest trophy since the Beatles won their last Grammy.

<>None of this cuts much clobber with Elliott or his Arts Council chums, their heads kept well below a paper mountain. Nor has it discommoded the ambitious Roger Lewis, who is past chairman of the Association of British Orchestras. They will appoint a duffer to do their bidding and life will trundle on as before until the next cash crisis. The misery of it is that an opportunity to rebuild Liverpool's orchestra on the back of the City of Culture bid has been squandered in a petty rift from which no-one locally, least of all the 64 musicians, emerges with much credit.

Nor is misery confined to the Mersey. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, <> been twice bailed out of bankruptcy, is sounding a little happier under the American Marin Alsop, but organisationally it sails on as a crock of compromises that may not survive the next storm. The Northern Sinfonia, meanwhile, has been shoehorned into the Gateshead Music Centre more for reasons of regional policy than of artistic development.

And then there is Scotland. In its heyday the Scottish Orchestra hired <> conductors of the quality of John Barbirolli, George Szell, Alexander Gibson and Neeme Järvi. Along the way it added 'National' and 'Royal' to its title, two vanities too far. In recent years the RNSO has been outplayed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted first by the granitic Osmo Vanskaa and now by the fizzingly young Ilan Volkov.


Landed with the unprepossessing ex-Bolshoi boss, Alexander Lazarev, the RNSO decided to get itself a new chief conductor. A well-run orchestra makes its choice from whichever of its recent visitors the players liked best. In Scotland, though, the guest list was hardly upper crust. The choice was between an Austrian, Christian Gansch, formerly chief producer for the Deutsche Grammophon record label; Bjarte Engeset, a Norwegian who made a record with the RNSO; and Stéphane Denève, a Frenchman who is booked to make his Covent Garden debut next month. Never heard of any of them? That's the level of choice.


Denève, who was given the job on Monday, came to Glasgow for the first time last October and so thrilled the musicians that they begged for his next free date. 'It was the first time I'd ever heard our players cheer a conductor from the platform.' says the RNSO chief executive, Simon Crookall. Denève's return concert was less successful: 'Guest conductor's touch may be too light to lead' was the Scotsman's verdict. It is Denève's first job and he has everything to prove. Happily, at 31, he is raw enough not to know how heavily the odds are stacked against him in a country that is earning a high reputation for philistinism by dismantling its opera company while creating a 'national' theatre than no-one in a bristlingly independent drama sector seems to want. Scotland these days is strictly for the brave.


As in football, there is now a premiership in British orchestras and pond life for the rest. London, Birmingham and Manchester monopolise top talent; elsewhere it is slim pickings and sterile scraps. The Proms cuts the country into two divisions and confirms the unequal status quo.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001